LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Once he provided all the answers. We knew all we needed about Tiger Woods, the golfer, if not the person.
He was the champion who could win U.S. Opens on a bad leg, who could set scoring records and who could do almost everything except walk on water.
Now the answers have become questions.
Now Tiger Woods looks bad—after the round Friday at the PGA Championship, he admitted the back was less-than-perfect, contradicting earlier denials—and his golf looks worse.
“It was sore,” confirmed Woods. “No doubt about it. It went out on me on the range. Just had to play through it. I couldn’t make a backswing. I can’t get the club back. Coming through is fine. I can’t get the club back.”
Now you have to wonder if even with more treatment and additional rest he’ll ever be able to take a swing at ball without the back giving him problems.
Now you not so much have to ask when he’ll be the player we knew—“Da Man”—but if he’ll ever again be the player we knew.
Whether all the recent upbeat comments—“Each and every week,” he told us, “I’ve gotten stronger and faster”—were not so much trying to make us believe as to make himself believe.
It was one thing when he could pick up just three birdies in the 36 holes he played before missing the cut at Valhalla by five shots, two of those birdies on the back nine on Friday.
It was another thing when at the seventh hole Friday he could barely bend down to pick up his tee after a drive that sloshed into the mud on the edge of a large water hazard.
"Certainly very frustrating anytime you have to sit out because of surgery and deal with the things I’ve had to deal with this year," Woods said. "It’s no fun."
It's no fun for the rest of us guessing when Tiger again will play.
This PGA was as painful figuratively for his fans as it was literally to Woods, 36 holes of disappointment, of agony, of wishing a man of his past achievements didn’t have to experience such embarrassment.
When the great Willie Mays played his final year with the New York Mets, he was long past retirement, a shell of a Hall of Famer, dropping balls, whiffing at pitches. Sad, so sad.
Woods hasn’t slipped that badly, not even close. Still, he’s far from the superstar who carried the PGA Tour and lured the non-golfers to the show, blasting up TV ratings, as he pounded drivers into the stratosphere and putts into the cup.
It has to get better. So goes the mantra. But what if doesn’t?
What if Woods, even with more repetitions, with additional rehab, with better feel in his swing, performs as he did in this 96th PGA. He shot 74-74—148, six-over par.
I’ve covered Tiger from the time he was at Stanford, watched him win every one of those 14 majors, learned how he could turn doubt into success. But now you have to speculate as much about the future as the present.
About where his game has gone and where it’s going.
“I won five times last year,” he reminds. Unquestionably. However, he hasn’t won this year, and in the small total of 25 rounds he’s had in 2014, 15 have been over par.
Since the microdiscectomy on his back March 31 and subsequent return to competition in June, he’s played 11 rounds. Nine have been over par. Is that too small a sample? Or is that an fair indication?
Greatness doesn’t disappear, but it does ebb. Woods is “only” 38, yet people in golf—noting the toll on his body, the four surgeries on his left knee, the recent operation to his back, the violent way he swings at the ball—insist it’s an old 38.
When does Tiger play again? When should he play again? The smart choice would be to stay away from golf, a sport which with its torquing and turning is notoriously tough on backs. But one of his playing partners, Padraig Harrington, said of Woods after the first round, “The man looks like he needs to play golf.”
Surely, most of all he needs to get healthy, but will he be healthy? “I’ve felt old for a long time,” was his response when someone asked if he felt old.
Golf has been called an old-man’s game, but that’s a misconception. The best players, the ones who lash at the ball, who power it 300 yards, who are able to extricate themselves from deep rough, are young, like 25-year-old Rory McIlroy, the halfway leader; like 26-year-old Jason Day, who shares second—although the man tied with him, Jim Furyk, is 44.
“I need to get stronger,” Woods repeated, and then confronted reality. “Obviously by playing, you can’t burn the candle at both ends.
"You want the bigger muscles controlling the swing. I’ve got to rely on my hands to do it.”
The Tour, which has relied on him for so long, can only hope that all the parts will again work for Woods. For now, they definitely are not.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.